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Food additives and psychological disorders in children

E-numbers 'can do psychological harm to children'

By SEAN POULTER - More by this author »
Last updated at 22:31pm on 20th September 2007

The food watchdog was accused yesterday of "chickening out" of tough action on additives.

In the face of unequivocal evidence of the potential harm to children, delivered in person by an eminent university researcher, the Food Standards Agency fudged a decision on what to do next.

Professor Jim Stevenson, author of a breakthrough study on additives, told the FSA board yesterday that additives used in thousands of sweets, cakes and processed foods "damage the psychological health of children".

His research at Southampton University found that healthy children become hyperactive after consuming a mix of artificial colours and preservatives.

He made it clear that the evidence is strong enough to justify a ban under European law, which requires a country to show that a food product constitutes "a serious or imminent risk to human health".

Asked if the evidence shows a serious risk to human health, Professor Stevenson said: "I think in terms of psychological health it does.

"We know that hyperactivity in a young child is a risk factor for, for example, later difficulties in school.

"Certainly it is associated with difficulties in learning to read. It is also associated with wider behavioural difficulties in middle childhood, such as conduct disorder.

"I feel that the effects we are seeing here are sufficiently great to represent a threat to health."

The Daily Mail has mounted a campaign to ban the suspect additives tartrazine (E102), ponceau 4R (E124), sunset yellow ( E110), carmoisine ( E122), quinoline yellow (E104) allura red AC (E129) and sodium benzoate (E211).

The FSA's line to date has been that the removal of the additives from food should be a commercial decicison for manufacturers.

It has advised those parents whose children are known to be hyperactive to remove the chemicals from their diet.

Yesterday, the board called on the food industry to do more to remove the chemicals, but it passed the final decision on whether to ban them to the EU.

Separately, the agency promised to improve advice to parents on what to do about the additives, although there was no indication of when this will be forthcoming.

Professor Stevenson signalled that the existing FSA advice does not go far enough.

"I would have thought it is actually quite difficult for parents to avoid these particular colours because of their rather pervasive nature," he said.

His view won support from the board's deputy chairman Dr Ian Reynolds, who questioned why suspect food additives were in the nation's diet in the first place.

He said the advice given by the FSA to parents to date was not good enough.

"We can't just say there are E-numbers on the back if you take a magnifying glass and look. That is not helpful to the consumer."

However, other board members attempted to kill efforts to push for a tougher line.

Dr Maureen Edmondson said it would be "foolish" to take any further action and insisted it was acceptable to expect parents to check small print.

The agency's chief scientist, Andrew Wadge, also argued against a need to strengthen advice. He said the decision on what to do about the additives should be passed to the EU.

The reality is that it could well take the EU more than a year, possibly much longer, to come to a conclusion.

Richard Watts, spokesman for the Children's Food Campaign, accused the FSA of failing children. "Parents will be furious that the FSA has chickened out of taking this vital step to protect their children," he said.


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